Southwood Smith’s 1851 letter to Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward

Southwood Smith

In 1851, a note was written to Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward (of Wardian case fame). The message was from Southwood Smith, an eminent English doctor, minister, and father of sanitary reform (public health) in England.  

During his time, Southwood Smith was recognized as the originator of preventive medicine, and he was constantly writing about health in ways the masses could easily understand and remember. He wrote numerous reports on cholera and introduced a house-to-house visitation system to prevent outbreaks. 

His obituary stated that Smith's work,

"brought him much in contact with the poor, his penetrating and benevolent mind readily perceived how greatly physical suffering contributes to moral degradation." 


When Smith wrote to Ward on April 1, 1851, he was part of the successful effort to get the Window Tax repealed.

Since 1696, England had imposed a tax based on, of all things,... wait for it...the number of windows on the house. Crazy, right?

On the plus side, the window tax was a no-brainer. Assessors just walked down the street and counted the windows on the house, and Bob's your uncle, and there's your tax bill.

But then the window tax story took a dark turn. Folks started bricking up their windows (nooo!) - or building homes with fewer windows - to avoid the tax. 

No windows mean no light or ventilation. And that created stuffy, sick living spaces.

By the mid-1800s, doctors like Smith realized that the window tax had to go.

Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward

So why would Smith (a doctor fighting the window tax) reach out to a plant guy like Ward?

Well... it just so happened that Ward conducting experiments on the influence of light on plants and animals.Ward showed that light acted,"chemically on the blood of animals, and also on the sap of plants." Essentially, Ward was proving Smith's point: light was vital to health.

Ward shared a story of how he had once grown two identical geraniums in different conditions - one in the light and the other in darkness.  The geranium grown in dark, was stunted and sickly. It had a skinny thread-like stem and it was studded with pathetic excuses for leaves (that were no bigger than the head a pinhead). Smith realized that plants were enjoying better living conditions than the people. Like plants, people need light.

The Letter

Here's Smith's to-the-point note to Nathaniel Ward:

My Dear Sir,

If you should have recently made any additional observations on the influence of light in health or disease, I should be glad if you would favor me with it, as it may just now, perhaps, be turned to account with reference to the Repeal of the Window Duties.

I am very faithfully yours,

Southwood Smith

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